Baby clothes hold a special place in costume collections. Except perhaps for wedding dresses, there's no other category of clothing that carries so much emotion. Infant clothes in the past were often made by the mother-to-be or other family members, and each stitch was lavished with love as well as hopes and dreams and probably a prayer or two for the new arrival. Because of their small size, baby clothes were also a splendid opportunity to display superior stitching and the finest of linens, and maybe even a bit of delicate needle-lace.
Too small to be recut or remodeled in a thrifty makeover, they survive as cherished mementos, a tiny little garment carefully tucked away in a drawer or chest. Too often, however, baby clothes are also sorrowful keepsakes from a time of staggeringly high rates of infant mortality, and represent a final link in linen and lace between a grieving mother and her lost child.
The exact reasons for why this particular shirt was preserved have been forgotten; according to the family's history, the shirt was associated with Jane Hodge Nichols, born around 1784 and later wife of Thomas Nichols of Maine. Little Jane was fortunate indeed to wear this shirt, which is rich in costly detail. This was likely a shirt for special occasions, not for everyday wear, and it's small (I'd guess about a modern size 6 month.) The plain-woven linen is extremely fine, the neck and sleeves are edged with bobbin lace, and there are insertions of dainty needle-lace at the tops of the shoulders. The pleats on the sleeves are almost unimaginably narrow, and the entire shirt represents a superior level of needlework. (As always, click on the image to enlarge.)
Most notable are the sleeve buttons (like modern cuff-links), an unusual feature in baby shirts. These are solid gold, with a hexagonal shape and engraved designs. The style of the buttons is earlier than the shirt itself, and it's possible that they were a family heirloom from a previous generation, and passed down along with the shirt. Beautiful and valuable, they must have brought good luck to tiny Jane: she lived until 1861.
Many thanks to Neal Hurst, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile, Colonial Williamsburg, for showing this shirt (plus many other costume goodies!) to me during a visit last month.
Infant's shirt with lace trim, maker unknown, c1760-1784, America, New England, (probably) Maine. Collection of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.